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Circling Back

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Steve and Sam call every hospital in DC, northern Virginia, and Maryland. There’s several John Does, but none of them have prosthetic arms, let alone metal ones, and even when Steve asks about amputees, there’s nothing.

The two of them spend four long days chasing leads and trying every safe house they know, interrogating the few Hydra members in custody, but none of them were anything near high enough in the ranks to know how the Winter Solider operated, or where he was ‘programmed’ to return to in case of disaster, or if he even had a rendezvous location at all. When Steve lets Sam argue him into finally sleeping, he returns to his DC penthouse (courtesy Pepper), passing the armed guards and taking the elevator that requires an RFID card up to his floor, and if he were just a soldier and not a soldier with heightened senses of sight and sound, he wouldn’t notice the misplaced shadow standing next to the breakfast table.

Bucky, he doesn’t say, because he can’t even open his mouth to breathe. Instead Steve just holds perfectly still, his fingertips still brushing against his front door from shutting it, keys in his other hand. Neither of them move for a painfully long moment, and then Bucky steps forward, very slowly, moving into the soft light of the desk lamp by the door.

He looks terrible. The stubble does little to hide the scrapes of dirt on his face, and the hoodie, jeans, and gloves all look like they may have been salvaged from a dumpster. Bucky’s hair hangs in limp strands, some falling in front of his eyes, which stare almost purposefully at the spot on the floor between them.

"Bucky," Steve manages, and Bucky looks up, gaze startling in its intensity and exhaustion, and Bucky nods, as if maybe Steve wasn’t sure. Maybe Bucky wasn’t.

Tony picked this apartment himself. There are guards on the roof, guards in the lobby, guards that patrol the hallways. This apartment is meant for high-level witness protection and political figures with prices on their heads. Bucky, looking half-starved and underslept, is standing in Steve’s living room and Steve cannot begin to express his surprise.

"I’ve been looking for you," Steve croaks, and Bucky just nods again, like he knew this. "Everywhere." Bucky nods again. It’s a short, sharp motion, as if it hurts to move. Steve walks forward, dropping the keys to the floor, unable to contain the feelings rising up from his chest and threatening to tumble out, spill everywhere, but when he raises his arms to finally embrace his friend Bucky’s eyes widen in slight alarm and he practically vanishes, backstepping quickly out of the light and into the corner. Steve suppresses a noise of surprise and thinks quickly. Bucky didn’t leave, and he didn’t attack, he just backed away. He can handle this. They were trained for lots of things in the war. People freed from camps often came out like frightened animals… unable to speak, unable to trust even a friendly touch. And who could blame them?

"Bucky," he says quietly. "I. I missed you."

Steve lets the silence hang for a while, but the shadow doesn’t respond. He swallows his disappointment.

"Are you… okay?" That probably needs specifics. "Do you need a hospital?"

There’s a quiet sound, like maybe Bucky’s clearing his throat. “I’m fine.”

The sound of his voice, however raspy and monotone, does something to Steve’s chest. Bucky. “Well,” he says, buying time while he tries to think. “Maybe you’re hungry.”


Steve bites his lip. “Do you want to eat?”

Very slowly, Bucky takes a half step forward. His expression is tense, eyes darting left and right, almost shy, like he doesn’t know how to say yes. Steve takes a deep breath and makes himself move away instead of toward, walking around the kitchen island and to the refrigerator. “I have leftovers. The pizza place on the corner…” Steve’s mind flashes on the night before, Sam coming over and them eating together while arguing over maps and folders full of captured Hydra members, but he can’t think about alerting the others yet. He’s barely sure Bucky isn’t going to jump out the window at any moment. “Do you want to sit down?” Steve gestures at one of the two stools pulled up to the kitchen island and then kneels down to fish the half-empty box of pepperoni and olive out. When he turns around again Bucky’s moved a little closer, but looks hesitant, almost confused.

"Sit?" He tries again, and Bucky does. Steve smiles encouragingly and sets the box down between them, turning around again to find the frying pan so he can heat the slices back up, but he doesn’t even have the gas on before he hears the cardboard box shuffling open. Peeking over his shoulder, he watches as Bucky grabs a slice and devours it cold, barely chewing, already grabbing another. Steve’s heart sinks. He’s starving.

Steve puts the frying pan back down on the stove top and watches Bucky, almost completely ignored as the other man ravages his way through the box. He almost looks like he’s going to choke himself gorging on food, but Steve can’t bring himself to stop Bucky, doesn’t know how to tell him to slow down without risking the reaction of a dog whose bone is pulled away too fast. Steve thinks about Zola, and about Pierce, and for all the anger that builds up in his mind it washes away when Bucky looks up, cheeks full, and stops mid-chew. Steve blinks. Bucky swallows.

"Water?" Bucky manages, sounding very quiet and very hopeful.